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6 Race Day Pacing Tips To Nail That 5K

Aug 1, 2016

5k races occupy a unique spot on the wide racing spectrum; they’re not considered long distance races by most, but they aren’t exactly a short sprint either. They are however; definitely short enough to fit in the comfort zone for most people, making them by far the most popular races in the country. Last year, more than 7.6 million Americans completed a 5K, a number that counts for almost half of the total race finishers across all distances. For those looking to become a part of that group for the first time, the hardest part of the race and training to figure out is pacing. There are plenty of things that can arise within the race that some runners may not even be aware of. Starting too fast, or trying to make up too much time too soon, are common mistakes, but plenty of others exist as well. Good news is there are some measures that you can take to help avoid common pacing mistakes, and they’re well worth the effort.

1. Do your homework on the course:

Getting as much advanced notice on the route as you can goes a long way. Most race websites will have a map to show you the general route, but those often won’t give you much detail on elevation, surface conditions, or how much space you have to work with at various points. If a test run is feasible, great. Doing a test run allows you to get a tangible feel for the course. This helps you feel more comfortable in the race, and may give you a mental advantage on other racers. Taking note of hills, turns, and other landmarks around the course can aid in formulating a plan of attack. But unfortunately that isn’t always the case. So what else do you have at your disposal? Going on Google Maps and doing a street view of the course is probably your next best option. This will give you some sense of elevation profile, as well as landmarks around to track yourself in between mile markers. Take notes if needed, and make those taken on the turns in the course as detailed as possible. Figuring out the shortest possible distance, could subtract some seconds off your time. A critical point to figure out in scouting is the half-mile mark.

2. Pacing scout-Find the half mile point

This is a trick of mine that I always incorporate into my pre-race task: finding the half-mile mark. This can be done as a part of your warm-up in a couple different ways. You can breakout the GPS watch or app and roughly nail it down by tracking a warm-up jog of a mile or half-mile, or you could estimate it without the GPS by doing the warm-up jog and keeping an eye on your pace. Another option is you can put another person (family member or friend) in attendance to help you track it down by driving out and locating it if that’s feasible. If you did in fact do a test run on the course, you could also mark it down then.

3. The negative split

This is the key concept of pacing in any middle to long distance race. If you take times from elite runners in any race that falls in this category and chop it up into say one mile segments, on average the times will either be pretty even splits, meaning they ran each mile segment at equal pace, or the later segments will be faster than the earlier ones. The idea behind this strategy of running slower sooner, is simply because you may well be able to run harder later. Now one might ask, well what about doing the opposite and running harder earlier and then easing back as the race goes along? This strategy is often referred to as, “banking time”, and without getting into too much physiology, the basic reason is that your body burns fuel more efficiently if it has time to work up to a pace, rather than being forced to work harder right out of the gate. This is a great concept to practice in training. Start the first couple miles a little bit slower than your target pace, and then gradually work up to target pace in the following miles. For those who don’t quite have the feel for running even splits, this is the way to go.

4. Getting a good start

And here is the explanation for why you find the half-mile mark. This is to help start you off at a good pace. With races 10K and below, if you get stuck in a pack that is running a rather complacent pace, it’ll kill your shot at running your best time. Here’s how to avoid that:

  • Start out with the pack. There’s no rush…yet
  • Stay a little towards the outside or inside of the course in case you need to make a move. Don’t get stuck in the middle if you can avoid it.
  • Keep an eye on your watch. Your pace around the half-mile mark should be at the very most 1 minute per mile slower than your goal pace. If it is slower, you might want to consider making a move up.

Packs tend to dissipate enough by the half-mile mark that one can comfortably pace themselves with ample room to run and make a move. The problem is, if an individual is still a minute or so slow because they got stuck in a slow pack early, they just burned a third of the race at a bad pace. This puts some extra emphasis on closing strong, and using the energy to try and play catch up after only one mile is tough. Knowing that half-mile mark, gives you an extra checkpoint so you can adapt more quickly. Keep in mind the negative split concept though, and be prudent with your energy if you decide to try and pass people. Be careful not to pass too many at once.

5. Roll with the terrain

Even if trying to play catch up, wasting all your gas going up one or two hills isn’t the way to go about it. Don’t be a hero; just roll with the terrain. That doesn’t mean go all-out going downhill either. It just means if your going downhill, still stay under control, keep your form, and simply let your momentum carry you. Going up hill, keep your shoulders and back locked (don’t slouch), keep your head up right, get a good knee lift, and keep your weight slightly forward so you can keep a solid foot strike. Also be mindful of the turns. Staying on the inside of the turns can shave off a few seconds, which may be valuable ones.

6. Save your best for last

Timing the final kick is crucial, as it’s your last chance to make up big ground. This is also where knowing the course comes in handy. The course may not allow for a very fast finish. Road races with rolling hills often fall into this category. Knowing this will help you appropriately time the earlier miles so you have enough in the tank to up the speed in the last leg of the race if you need to or want to in order to turn in a good time, cross that finish line, and of course…get that race T-shirt!


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